Why We Must Stand with Haiti’s Democracy Activists

When tens of thousands of people are on the streets decrying dictatorial actions, they’re cheered on as pro-democracy protestors. Yet when similar protests occur in Haiti, they are diminished and overlooked. Being on the right side of history requires that we listen to the voices of Haitian civil society.

In the days leading up to February 7, 2021, the U.S. State Department announced its support for the continued rule of President Jovenel Moïse in Haiti. This position was in direct opposition to much of Haitian civil society, including its vibrant human rights community, which condemned Moïse’s occupation of the presidency as an unconstitutional prolongation of his mandate, which they understand to have ended on February 7. This interpretation of Haiti’s Constitution is shared by Haitian legal experts, including its judicial oversight body, religious leaders and activists. Haitian civil society has been sounding the alarm about Moïse’s abuse of power for years, documenting links to a series of massacres, corruption, and the proliferation of gangs. There has never been a more critical juncture for those based outside of Haiti to listen to Haitian voices.

To emphasize this imperative, the Global Justice Clinic issued a joint statement on February 13 calling for the U.S. government to address the human rights concerns of Haitian civil society and hosted a panel discussion with NYU’s Hemispheric Institute on March 24 to hear directly from Haitian human rights defenders and civil society leaders about the current situation in Haiti.

The U.S. government is not alone in giving short shrift to Haitian civil society. Media coverage has failed to adequately convey the widespread outcry against this administration. Nor has it captured the energy and hope that buoys Haitian human rights activists in this moment. Emmanuela Douyon is an economist and anti-corruption activist with “Nou Pap Domi,” a collective of young Haitians committed to fighting corruption, impunity, and social injustice. She’s inspired by the continued involvement of civil society, especially as “a climate of fear has settled in” the country over the last few months due to insecurity, political violence, and kidnappings: “When I see people who fought against dictatorships – who were victims and suffered a lot – and they come back out here to stand up and to fight, that gives me a lot of strength. When I see people from my generation and younger who say they’re going to keep standing and defending their values, the rule of law, democracy – that gives me hope that we can do more.” [1] Rosy Auguste Ducena, a human rights attorney and Program Director for Haiti’s National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH), describes how the continued broad-based engagement motivates her: “What enables civil society to continue playing its role… is that the people have shown they have the will to not give up in this battle – there is a will to see change… That’s the biggest message of hope we have. We’ve reached a moment where we, as civil society, are one with the people. When we see they’re taking their claims and demands into their own hands as their own, we don’t need to work for them; we’re working together and that’s the best hope we have in this current situation.”

Haitian advocates forcefully condemn the pressure by the international community to hold presidential elections this year and to facilitate a referendum to alter the constitutional structure of Haiti’s government. Woodkend Eugene, a human rights attorney from the Human Rights Office in Haiti (BDHH), acknowledges that while it can be “difficult for everyone to agree on a solution, what is certain is that what is happening right now is not the solution.” He stresses that the Haitian Constitution states clearly that there can be no amendments to the Constitution via referendum, that “we cannot go into an election with an electoral council that is not legitimate,” referring to the unconstitutional appointment of its members by Moïse, and in a context of “generalized insecurity where multiple people in power have been connected to armed gangs” (the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions against three such individuals in 2020).  Ms. Auguste also pointed out the potential consequences of pushing for elections now: “The international community might be pushing for it, but the Haitian people have said there are things they will not accept or tolerate, and that’s going into elections with this administration. The people won’t accept this referendum, and if this continues to be pushed, we risk falling into a post-electoral crisis… a bigger crisis than [what] we have now.”

Regarding the appropriate role of the international community and the U.S. government in Haiti’s affairs, Ms. Auguste made her message clear: “Firstly, we are not children…Let the Haitian people choose their own future, choose when elections are right for them and choose how their country will be led.”

Ms. Douyon urged the U.S. government to “avoid repeating history, as they did with Duvalier” and to be “on the right side of history” this time by “act[ing] to stand with the people.” U.S. support for the Duvalier dictatorship and its tragic consequences are well-documented.

The clarity and consistency in Haitian advocates’ analysis and recommendations is striking, particularly because Haiti is often painted by the media and foreign actors as a “problem-state”—a never-ending and uncontrollable locus of crisis where it is impossible to discern root causes. Each of the panelists demonstrated that these tropes should be rejected and that Haitian experts should be recognized for what they are—those best placed to assess what their country needs the most. If their recommendations were adopted, rapidly held elections would not be portrayed as the only viable path forward. Instead, the power grab of a man accused of collusion in grave human rights violations would be plainly unveiled.

When tens of thousands of people are on the streets decrying dictatorial actions, they are often cheered on as pro-democracy protestors. Yet when similar protests occur in Haiti, as they have over the last several weeks, these protests are diminished and overlooked. Being on the right side of history requires that we listen to the voices of Haitian civil society.

2021. Gabrielle Apollon

Gabrielle Apollon, Director of Haitian Immigrant Rights Project at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law.

[1] All of the quotes from the panel discussion have been translated from Haitian Creole into English.